the canoe
chris muir

I was playing with a model aeroplane, rearranging my Matchbox car collection or trying to figure out how to recharge the batteries for my remote control car, I can’t quite remember exactly what I was doing when my father raised his head from a large weekend paper and announced “We’re buying a canoe.”

“What’s a canoe?” I asked.

“It’s a small boat, powered with paddles,” he said.

“Like a kayak?”

“Yes, like a kayak, but you can fit two people in a canoe.”

“But I thought you could fit two people in a kayak.”

“No, usually a kayak is for one person only and your legs are covered, while a canoe is for two people and it’s open.”

“Canoe’s a strange word.”

“Hmm, it’s a French word.”

“How do you spell it?”


My dad knows so many things.

“We’ll have to buy roof racks so we can transport it,” he said.

“Transport it where?”

“Well, first we need to buy it and bring it back home, and then we’ll need to transport it to the water.”

“What water?”

“We can take it to Lake Conjola.” We had a family holiday at Lake Conjola every year and it was the BEST. For anywhere between two and four weeks we could bodyboard, bike ride, play bingo, go fishing and prawning and now, go canoeing.

“And maybe we can take it on weekends to The Lakes.”

During the year when it was hot and we were too far from the beach, we used to swim at Thirlmere Lakes. There were four connected freshwater lakes. They were surrounded by reeds and set in bushland, rich in native flora and fauna including beautiful flowers that snapped shut when you touched them and long grey goannas. The first lake was closed for public use, the second was dedicated to those using motorboats pulling along water skiers. In actual fact it was way too small for skiers so it wasn’t too popular for that in the end. The third lake was left for swimmers and had a long wooden wharf that was perfect for running along and jumping into the water. It also had a ladder, with which you could climb back out of the water and then run and jump again over and over. The fourth lake I very seldom saw as it was past a locked gate that we inevitably named ‘The Locked Gate’. It was privately leased and had a caravan park on it that was rumoured to be a nudist camp.

When my father told me we may be taking the canoe to The Lakes I immediately was worried about having to take the canoe into the motorboat lake, over all the waves of the skiers. I hated to think what would happen if we got in their way and how mad they’d be. Perhaps one of those big noisy boats would come crashing into us.

“I think we can take it into the swimming lake.”

“But what about the rangers? Isn’t there a sign that says no boats allowed?”

“No, I think its okay, you can take small unmotorised boats there.”

I had to reinstate my pre-pubescent social standing and rationalise the fact that we were not a motorboat family. Scot Casey, my friend around the corner, belonged to a motorboat family, but his dad was a builder and my dad worked in an office. It was only fitting that they had a huge V8 powerboat with water skies and an aquaplane, while we had a little paddle-powered French-named canoe. Motorboats scared me a bit, so I was happy enough that we were a canoe family.

“We’re gettin’ a canoe,” I said, the next day at school.

“It’s a French word and it’s spelled C-A-N-O-E. You can fit two people in a canoe but only one in a kayak and that’s why we’re gettin’ a canoe instead.” Everyone was clearly overawed by my wordly intelligence and jealous of my family’s new venture. I suddenly looked around the sad faces of all my friends and thought, how can they not have a canoe?

We fit new roof-racks to our little old white car a few weeks later and hopped in for a fifty minute ride to finally pick it up.

“How’d you know where to get a canoe, dad?”

“I found it in the Trading Post. It’s made of fibreglass.”

“What’s fibreglass?”

He explained that it was a lightweight material that was stronger than plastic. Fibreglass was a new hi-tech material for me.

“How could you get fibreglass shaped like a canoe?”

“I don’t know,” replied my father

When I was a child fibreglass canoes were cool and this had been an extravagant and complicated purchase that I needed to adjust to. I would be a canoe owner now. Our family had been rocketed to a new level of hi-tech-ness and I could hardly recognise us anymore. I couldn’t believe we had once been a family without a canoe.

But a stream of new questions accompanied the newly acquired canoe. What do canoe owners look like? What do they do? It didn’t look so hi-tech when we picked it up. It was a new boat and we had to complete it by installing buoyancy foam inside each end. We also bought two paddles and a couple of life jackets.

“What’s buoyancy?”

“When something’s buoyant it floats in the water. The buoyancy material will help the canoe float if it gets too much water in it.”

“It’s a strange word.”

“Hmm, buoyancy is a French word too.”

“How do you spell it?”

We went down to The Lakes and tested it out for the first time. There were two seats, one at each end but it was large, so large we could nearly fit the whole family in it, though it looked like it might start taking water. Instead we decided to only put three or four of us in at the most, which included one or two kids who went in the middle, side by side. It turned out that, unlike a car, the person at the back steered and the person at the front helped power us forward. We all wanted to steer and so each of us shuffled around the small boat to take our turn. I also learned that you could steer by paddling on the opposite side of the direction you wanted to head or just by dragging your paddle on the same side. These French were so different from us I thought, so smart.

Not many trips to the lake had passed before me and my brother were allowed to take the canoe around by ourselves. We explored the other side, mooring our canoe for minutes at a time, admiring the swimming side where all of the people were. It looked so different from this side. We’d hike around a bit, then return for fear that our canoe might be rushed out into the middle of the lake by storms or what have you, but it was always right were we left it. We explored the edges covered in lilies and watched silently as small fish and sometimes little turtles came to the surface. The water was black so you could only see about a metre down. We also explored the reeds in great detail, forging paths through them with the sharp tip of our fibreglass canoe to find bird nests, spider webs and more reeds. It got really hard to paddle the canoe when the reeds were thick though so mostly we had to paddle backwards towards the lake to get out.

Sometimes the wind picked up and we had to paddle against it towards the wharf and I’d be worried that we didn’t have enough strength to get back, but my older brother would always have enough muscle power to get us safely back. At other times it was so still that you could hear the echo of the paddle on the aluminium rim as you dropped it to admire the calm of the middle of the lake. Sometimes we’d even jump off it for a swim, out in the middle, and you had to know how to get back in without tipping it over. It was best to do this from the front or the rear as opposed to the middle, otherwise someone would need to lean in the opposite direction. We would sit on the tip of the canoe instead of the seat to make it more exciting while we paddled. Friends would be towed as a few people sat inside and it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted every possibility of what you could possibly do with a canoe in a lake. That was until we had a fantastic new idea.

I can’t remember who thought of the idea first, if it was either me or my brother but we started to talk about it whenever we thought about the canoe. Was it possible?

We asked our dad.

“Are all the lakes joined?”

“Yes, I think they are, and they are all fed by the same river system.”

“So does that mean that water goes all the way from the swimmin’ lake to the motorboat lake?”

“Yes it does.”

“Do you think we can paddle all the way from one to the other?”

“There are too many reeds.”

“I know, but if there was a path through the reeds, could we?”

“I don’t see why not.”

It was settled then. We had a new challenge.

The next time we were at the lake we waited for a time when the family had finished with the canoe for the day and set off to check out what secrets lay between the lakes. I don’t think our parents really thought that we’d give it a proper go, seeing that the distance was too great, obviously nobody had ever attempted such a difficult challenge, we were bravely going where no-one had dared to go before. Well, perhaps the aborigines had dared but we were definitely the first ones since they’d been hunting birds here.

When we got there we were both a little scared of what we’d find behind the reeds, but it just seemed silly to go back now.

“Let’s go!” said my brother and so we prepared our run-up. We gained speed and ploughed straight into the reeds. I had adrenaline pumping through my little veins. Pretty soon, after about five metres it got really hard to paddle because there were just too many and they were too thick. We had just about come to a stop when we started using the reeds themselves to pull us inwards and before long we disbanded the paddles altogether, clunking the canoe floor. We pulled as hard as we could until finally the resistance was too great and we came to a halt. We looked back and saw that we were now completely entrapped within the reeds, like some sort of natural prison. Only the blue sky was above us and nothing but those green-grey reeds all around us. You could hear nothing but the rustle of reed on reed. The sound was intoxicating. It was obvious. They were just too thick to paddle through. For a second we stopped to think about what to do. I took one of the paddles and found that I could touch the bottom with it, about half a metre below us. We used the paddles to push off the ground and make another metre or so forward. It was then so shallow that I could nearly touch the bottom with my hand. It was too shallow for a canoe now. My brother suggested that if I was a little too weak and scared, maybe we should turn back. I thought this was very thoughtful of him but I would show him that I was brave and strong enough to go on and so I jumped out and started to pull the canoe through the reeds. It was too heavy with him in it so he got out and the canoe suddenly felt really light. As we both pushed it the water became shallower and shallower until finally there was hardly any water at all and we were trudging though the reeds with only ankle deep water. The reeds thinned out a little and it became easier still. Suddenly, our spirits soared as we entered a small clearing in the reeds. We reefed the canoe into the open and smiled. We’d reached the halfway point and we were going to make it.

I never would’ve believed it if anybody had told me… A secret place in the middle of the two lakes. And we had discovered it. I would stare for ages from the dirt access road, which circled the lake, and remember this day. I’d try my hardest to sneak a peek at this place, but unbeknownst to me I’d never see it again. Then something amazing happened.

I turned in delight to my brother, but he wasn’t sharing my excitement. Something had caught his attention and he was standing and gazing. I followed his gaze and turned nearly 280 degrees before I understood his fixated attention. There was a medium-sized tree stump, sticking out of the swampy ground. Better than that, I followed the stump upwards and it became a full-grown wattle tree. It had long died and was without leaves, but what a magnificent sight! We discussed why we hadn’t seen this tree before from the road and neither of us could explain it. It was magic to us. Of course, I started to climb it and as you know wattle trees at the best of times are very brittle, but I was an experienced tree climber and I managed to get halfway before my brother started too. I climbed about 12 feet in height while my brother was close behind, at about 8 feet. The branches started to thin out and brake above me, so I stopped and had a look around.

The view was spectacular. Imagine a flat valley of nothing but long reeds, rimmed with gentle, rolling hills of untouched, pristine Australian bush. That’s what we saw. We could hear the motorboats and we could hear children’s squeals as they jumped off the jetty. Time stopped still. There was another sound too that was much closer and less reverberant. It was like a child singing. I got shivers down my back and listened closer. It sounded primal, like something from thousands of years ago. I imagined the aborigines who used to call this place home. Imagine a young child who’d run away from his community and was exploring the bush alone. He had skills far beyond what my brother and I possessed for exploring and surviving out here. For starters, we’d go home to sleep in our soft beds at night and we only knew of a few things you could eat. Imagine the child coming closer as his song grew. He was singing his way through the bush, following imaginary lines, like a map in his mind. I saw the reeds rustle and was hypnotised as the small child entered the clearing below us, carrying what appeared to be his father’s large spear. He was around the same age as me and moved quickly and he strode over the muddy ground. I couldn’t hear his footsteps at all, just his song. He didn’t notice us, or our canoe. It was as if we didn’t exist to him. Soon he trotted off out of sight again and his song died away.

“What are you doin’?” asked my brother, and just then the branch underneath my right foot gave way, sprinkling him with small pieces of bark as it hit the ground. We scurried down the tree and took up the canoe once again. We headed onto the next stage, breaking through to the other side and into the motorboat lake. Everything worked in exactly the opposite way and we popped out on the other side of the reeds, right as a speedboat was careening towards us, trailing a water skier. The wanderlust of our explorations had been ripped away from under our feet as we remembered again that we were not a motorboat family. We were a canoe family.

We were tossed around by the waves of the boats and the skiers and we had to precariously stick to the outer limits of the lake for fear of being capsized. This lake was treacherous in a canoe. We had to leave.

A funny thing happened on the way back. We returned through the reeds to the swimming lake towards our mother and father, where they were waiting for us with our sister in the car. We followed what we thought was the same route through the same grey-green reeds but we missed the clearing in the middle of the lakes altogether. I still don’t know how we missed it that second time and I was never able to find it again. To this day, I’ve never been back to that secret place. I guess that makes it all the more special.

And it turns out that neither canoe, nor buoyancy, are French words.

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